Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dorothy Dunnett's THE UNICORN HUNT

I've already had one bout of impatience with Niccolo, his opacity, his motivations and his less than stellar treatment of his companions, but things got much, much worse in The Unicorn Hunt, even though I once again got to see sights and have experiences that are really not available to me in meatspace life. Niccolo has just become a real jackass of a tour guide.

Of course this is all fallout from the knife-twist of an ending that Scales of Gold brought us (spoilers for that novel follow. What are you even doing reading this review if you haven't read that book anyway?). Gelis van Borsalen, once just the bratty younger sister of Niccolo's lover Katelina, took the virago route to better hound Niccolo about her sister's sad fate, for which she and all of Niccolo's other enemies still blamed him, and forced herself on him as a traveling companion, the better to simultaneously berate him and get the gory details about what became of poor Katelina. But of course, of course, of course, she wound up sleeping with him. A lot. And they decided that maybe they liked each other well enough to maybe get married when they got home from their African adventures. Which they did, but only after Gelis spent some time in Scotland as a maid-of-honor to Princess Mary. Where her orbit intersected with that of Niccolo's very estranged maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol*. Very intimately. Oh, look, she wasn't through trying to punish Niccolo, was she?

So now Gelis claims to be pregnant, but not by her shiny new husband. And her shiny new husband is still reeling from the news that Loppe (whom we now call Umar because that was his actual name all along) was killed along with his entire family in a massacre back at Timbuktu.

So what with one thing and another, The Unicorn Hunt is one giant traveling temper tantrum on the part of Niccolo. As we travel with him from Bruges to Scotland to the Tyrol to Egypt to Cyprus to Venice, we are meant to understand that a very elaborate and subtle game is going on between our hero and his crafty wife, but it really just looks like Niccolo has gone right off the rails, picking fights with former friends, viciously attacking old enemies in unconscionably harsh ways, lying to his companions (well, he always does that, but it's usually in some way for their own good? Or at least not seemingly just for the sake of being a jerk?) and generally just causing trouble for everybody. There are allusions strewn throughout the narrative to things being "steps" in a "plan"  but I could never figure out what the plan really was or even what it was supposed to accomplish, save finally flushing out Gelis, who hid herself away after their wedding night, claims to have given birth but keeps spiriting away the alleged child before Niccolo can even lay eyes on it, but if that's all that was aimed for, it's the most unnecessarily convoluted Rube Goldberg machine of a plan, maybe ever, and it didn't work too well anyway.

What saved this novel for me was a new character, a sort of proto-Phillippa Somerville named Katelijne, niece of Niccolo's one time good friend and protector Anselm Adorne, whose antics in Niccolo's train and wake are highly original and entertaining and who takes no crap from anybody, even when she's mortally ill. That and my love for many of the secondary characters in Niccolo's company, especially physician Tobie, sailor Michael Crackbene, Grigorio the lawyer and his mistress, Margo... I'm always happy to see any of them in a Niccolo novel (and many of the others besides, but some got left in Bruges, or Scotland, or Venice, etc.).

And believe me, this novel needed saving, because not only has its hero turned into a world class asshat, but he's also, midway through an eight-volume series of highly realistic, plausible and naturalistic historical fiction, suddenly manifested a supernatural talent that then serves to get him out of all of his plot difficulties: he's a diviner. Not just a water witch, though he is that; he can also divine seams of precious metals waiting to be mined, find stashes of already coined precious metals, and even, via the trick of tying an object to a string and swinging it over a map, find people who are hiding from him. Dudes, I'm about ready to give up right here.

But still, it's Dunnett. And despite all of the things that made me want to tear my hair out, there are still wonderful things to be had from this novel. Her ability to evoke exotic settings and celebrations, her descriptions of places I'll never see and places that don't exist anymore, and the cultures that inhabit-or-once inhabited them, is second to none, and no matter how much she wound up cheating us of an amiable hero and a plausible plot resolution, she did not cheat us on any of her scenery porn.

So I'm going to keep going in a while, but right now, I need a break from Niccolo and his tantrums. He can still and think a while about what he's done. I've got a summer of Wolfe to get on with.

*Who, for his part, is unknowingly raising a child born to his late wife, Katelina, that is not, in fact, his, but was sired by one Niccolo.

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